When Jack Mendelsohn was attending Harvard Divinity School nearly 70 years ago, a magazine editor asked him to describe why he wanted to become a minister.
“I said in the piece that I knew of no greater opportunity than as a minister for helping people with their deepest spiritual needs, while also inspiring them to overcome the great social injustices that mark the human condition,” Rev. Mendelsohn told the Globe in 1988, when he was retiring as senior minister of First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist. “I enumerated war, hunger, racism, and poverty.”
For more than a half-century, he raised a prominent voice from the pulpit on those and other issues, notably during a decade of ministry in the 1960s at Arlington Street Church in the Back Bay. During his tenure, which coincided with the expansion of the Vietnam War, the parish held a draft refusal service, during which a few hundred college students turned in draft cards.
Rev. Mendelsohn, who also made news while traveling with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Syria and Cuba, died of prostate cancer Oct. 11 in his Maynard home. He was 94.
“He was so well loved because his ministry was so profound,” Jackson said. “He meant so much to me. He meant so much to all of us.”
Years before court-ordered school desegregation and the violence that often accompanied the busing of students, Rev. Mendelsohn warned in sermons that stormy times lay ahead if Boston’s schools failed to address racial inequities.
He called for increasing the number of women in the ministry when his was a comparatively lonely voice on that issue. Rev. Mendelsohn also drew a public rebuke from the Boston Archdiocese via an editorial in its newspaper, The Pilot, when in 1960 he called for government to modify traditional tax exemptions for some parishes: “How can prospering churches, as financial parasites in tax-embarrassed cities, hope to justify their claim to moral authority?”
“Jack was a liberal lion and a powerful presence in the pulpit and in the public square,” said the Rev. John Gibbons, who succeeded Rev. Mendelsohn as senior minister at First Parish in Bedford. “He really brought social justice into the DNA of Unitarian Universalist identity.”
Rev. Mendelsohn “was a very gentle soul, yet he was really quite a fierce crusader for justice, whether for race or gender or sexual orientation,” said his wife, Judith Frediani. “He would jump in and was always ahead of time.”
In a tribute, the Rev. William F. Schulz, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, called Rev. Mendelsohn “the most renowned Unitarian Universalist minister of his generation — and one of the most controversial.’’
“He had legions of admirers, of whom I was one of the foremost, and scores of detractors, most of whom, fortunately, he outlived,” Schulz wrote. “He was a writer of the sheerest elegance, a speaker of incomparable power, an enormous public presence, a fierce devotee of justice, and at the same time a personally shy and occasionally awkward man.”
Jack Mendelsohn Jr. was born in Cambridge. In material posted on the website of First Parish in Bedford, he wrote of his father, Jack Sr., that “theology was about as pressing for him as witchcraft.”
He was a boy when his mother, Anna Melissa Torrey Mendelsohn, died of an abdominal inflammation. To no avail, young Jack had asked God to spare her life.
“Since that moment religious questions have never been far from my thoughts,” he wrote. “It may be a gift or a neurosis, but I am gripped with the habit of religious searching.”
He graduated from Somerville High School, received a bachelor’s degree from Boston University in 1939, and graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1945.
While serving as a minister in Rockford, Ill., he became friends with Adlai Stevenson, who twice was the Democratic presidential nominee. Rev. Mendelsohn then moved to Indianapolis, where he was minister of what was then All Souls Unitarian Church. He also took part in civic organizations that advocated for integration, human rights, and civil liberties.
He was installed as minister of Arlington Street Church in September 1959 and later served as minister of First Unitarian Church of Chicago before taking the post in Bedford.
Rev. Mendelsohn’s first wife, the former Mary Allee, died at 28 in 1942. His other marriages, prior to marrying Frediani, ended in divorce.
For many years he was friends with Jackson, whom he accompanied to Syria when Jackson negotiated the release in 1984 of Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman Jr., a Navy pilot who had been shot down over Lebanon. Rev. Mendelsohn also traveled that year to Cuba when Jackson’s peace mission resulted in the release of Cuban political prisoners.
“I think Jack saw the world through a door, not a keyhole,” Jackson said of Rev. Mendelsohn. “Though he was a Unitarian, in many ways he was a globe-itarian. Wherever his feet landed, he was at home.”
Rev. Mendelsohn’s writings included “Channing, The Reluctant Radical,” a biography of William Ellery Channing, a 19th-century Unitarian preacher. He also wrote “Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age: Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist.”
Arriving in Boston in 1959, Rev. Mendelsohn cut a physically imposing figure, at 6 foot 3 inches and 185 pounds, and all his life remained “enormously charismatic,” his wife said.
“Literally thousands of people were touched by his personal magnetism,” she said. “Many ministers in our denomination became ministers because of him, because they were attracted to his kind of ministry and his personality.”
Frediani added that she and Rev. Mendelsohn “were very deeply in love from the beginning to when he died in my arms. I loved being loved by him.”
In addition to his wife, Rev. Mendelsohn leaves two sons, Channing of Watertown and Kurt of San Francisco; a daughter, Deborah of Duncan, Ariz.; two stepchildren with Frediani, Aaron Worth of Boston and Keilah Worth of St. Paul; and a step-grandson.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 12 in First Parish Church in Bedford.
Schulz, who is now president and chief executive officer of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a human rights and social justice advocacy organization, wrote that “Jack extended the reach and power of Unitarian Universalism well beyond the halls of our little denominational band.”
Rev. Mendelsohn, Schulz wrote, was a mentor “because he was so large of spirit, so filled with rage and vision and pain and faith. Against all odds and sometimes even against his better judgment, Jack truly believed in the church, believed in our mission, and believed in us. Jack was the real thing.”
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